I do enjoy thought experiments – they are a way to see things anew, or to challenge my own biases or patterns of thought. I think they are a form of lateral thinking – a chance to step outside your regular way of thinking. I recently came across Brian Eno’s “oblique strategy” system for the creative process and I’m really looking forward to exploring those more.
A recent article on Brain Pickings, one of my favourite sites, explored the thought experiments that Einstein used to perform. Alan Lightman’s book called “Einstein’s Dreams” explores our perception of time, and one experiment in particular caught my attention.
From a rational point of view, we experience time from the perspective that the past is fixed & unchanging and the future is unknown and yet to be determined. The experiment that is referenced in the book puts a mirror to that notion and instead wonders what it would be like if the future was fixed & unchanging but the past was unknown and yet to be determined?
I thought this was such an interesting concept to dig into. I began to wonder what that would feel like, to know that my future was already fixed, but my past was ever-changing. What would that feel like? It was challenging to avoid absurdities and contradictory situations, but I began to imagine that experience. The idea that waking up each morning, I might not be sure about what led me to that moment in time.
How would that change my approach to living? We experience everything as a flow forward through time, with a cause & effect. In this new situation, however, the cause & effect become mixed up completely. If my future is already set, how would an uncertain past affect that?
What this then led me to was my own perception of past & future. I think that many of us, myself included, look for as much certainty in our future as we can. We like to be prepared and not have any surprises. We like to know that everything will turn out just fine. In this thought experiment, I think I would have a strange comfort in knowing the future was set, but it would still feel as though I had a shaky foundation now knowing exactly how I got to that point in my life. It’s an odd concept.
What I started to find funny about this experiment is that even though we crave that kind of certainty of the future, we also hold onto the past & relive it instead of keeping it as fixed & unchanging. So in a way, we stress about the past, and we stress about the future and experience that stress in the present.
I think what this experiment has done for me is to remind me of that unchanging past that I can let go of. I can acknowledge it and see how I have learned from it, but there is no point in stressing over it or keeping it in the present. It has also encouraged me to look to the future not with a fear of the unknown, but rather with an optimism & excitement, like it is an adventure. All of this happens in the focal point of the present which is right at the border between these two realms.
In a way, this experiment has relieved me of the burden of the past. Instead of worrying about both past & future in the present, I can let go of the past and look forward to the future in the present. It has reminded me of some of the absurdities & contradictions of our existence and that there really only is the present to experience.
Thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this and I hope it has resonated with you in some way.